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Laurie Snyman, LMSW, is the owner of Awakenings Family Therapy in Lansing, Michigan and the author of several books. She also services the Michigan Conf as assistant evangelism director.

 Helping Troubled Members  (pdf)

Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors, there is safety.                    
 Proverbs 11:14 (KJV)

Everyone has problems. We have problems. People around us have problems and people in our churches.  What types of problems have you heard of or were told of in your church? Here are some:
  • Relationship problems between family members
  • Abusive home situations
  • Substance addiction
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Lack of direction in life
  • Financial situations
  • Homelessness
  • Job loss or stress
  • Caregiver stress
  • Depression or/and anxiety
  • Rebellious children
  • Incest/sexual abuse
  • Discontentment
  • Divorce and child custody issues
  • Marital problems
Why A Spouse May Be Involved in Counseling
The job of a pastor and, to some extent, a pastoral couple, has long been associated with the task of counseling. People rely on their pastor to a have solid Bible knowledge and an understanding of people. People also hope their problems can be solved by someone who has a strong connection with God. And, I am not being sarcastic to say, people anticipate a free service.  

Ministry spouses may also become involved in counseling. Seen as the heart of the church, people who would not feel comfortable sharing with a male pastor may target the pastor’s wife as a person they can talk to. (When I was a director of an agency with 15 therapists, it was common for clients of both genders to ask for a woman therapist.)

Some spouses may be trained counselors (such as in Michigan currently, a large group of ministry spouses are social workers and counselors), but many more spouses have no training and may feel very inadequate at helping parishioners with problems.
Another scenario is that a pastor may include his/her spouse in counseling married and  engaged couples, grieving people, and those  of the opposite gender.

Some ministry spouses love counseling ministry. Some are skilled listeners and are gifted with a large capacity to love. They are a huge asset to their pastor spouse.

Limitations of being the Counselor for Parishioners
  • Whatever You Cultivate Grows. If a minister or ministry spouse, sees their role as a counselor, they often find that area of their ministry growing. This can take away from the other duties they need to accomplish. Whatever we spend time doing, usually grows. Many well-meaning pastoral couples have found themselves completely overwhelmed with the growing counseling needs of a congregation, leaving them unable to fulfill other responsibilities.
  • Time Constraints. To do counseling well, there must be adequate time and planning. People in crisis need follow up and accountability. A pastor/spouse must evaluate each situation carefully, sharing relevant principles from God’s Word, and offering practical suggestions for moving forward. If there is substance abuse or violence, there needs to be referrals to other agencies to do an adequate job with such a person.
  • Liability can go up. If working with the opposite sex, there needs to be a third party nearby for safety at all times. Some unhealthy dependencies can develop and when they are referred on to another person, they may feel anger and make accusations of the counselor taking sides and not being neutral, or giving poor advice. They also might accuse a pastor of referring to them in a sermon or telling another leader about their personal problems. Since some people may need adequate protection from abuse, there might be sexual abuse to report and that can make a parent angry that it was reported. Pastors are mandated reporters, suicidal people need someone with them at all times to make sure they aren’t left alone, or the police must be called when they make a threat.  There can be sticky situations, families that take sides in a church that can result in misunderstandings, a person (sometimes with mental health issues or personality disorders) may blame a pastor/pastor’s spouse when there is no improvement or feel angry over his/her advice. They may tell other church members information about the counseling session that they did not like but a pastor must keep information confidential and is not able to defend him/herself against that person’s words. There may be anger over what was done or said in the counseling session. And, not knowing when to refer can also put one’s church or denomination at risk.
  • Referrals, Resources, Medication, Accountability. People with addictive issues traditionally need an addictions counselor, an intervention with their family, support for family members, resources and materials, a need to attend a group or classes and have an accountability person they can call and meet with. This can be a few times per week. Most pastors/spouses do not have the time to find these resources and cannot adequately serve this person. The person may need more intensive treatment than a pastor can provide. This usually includes people with mental health issues, suicidal ideation, personality disorders and addictions like gambling, sex, drugs or alcohol. There may be needs for medication and a pastor would need to interface with the physician providing the medication. Actually, there have been lawsuits where pastors or pastoral couples were attempting to help people with mental health or abuse problems instead of referring them to a professional, and because of a suicide or homicide, the pastor or pastoral couple became the center of the lawsuit (and were charged) because they attempted to provide services that were out of their expertise.
  • Some Counselees Have Personality Disorders that will not be solved by Counseling. Some people are suffering with personality disorders. They need almost constant monitoring and intensive treatment to deal with these issues. They are people who do not always have the boundaries or self-control to limit their time with the pastor and his spouse.  A pastor and spouse that believe they can help these people adequately may have little time and energy left to give other parishioners. We need to be realistic about the time and help we can extend and what to do next if progress is not seen. We need to get over ourselves and accept that we are not able to fix all the problems brought to us by parishioners. We must admit that certain people need more specialized, well trained help than we can provide.
  • Needy people. Needy people often feed their emptiness with keeping a pastor busy with their problems. They love talking and being listened to. They may just get over one problem and replace it with another. They don’t understand their need for attention. Even Jesus asked the man at the pool, “Do you want to get well?”  If we realize that no matter how much time we spend, a person is not making progress or following through, we may need to draw the line and encourage this person to take the recommended action before we meet again.
  • Reality of Problems. Pastoral couples need to be realistic and understand that some people have long standing problems that began before the pastoral couple arrived and will continue after they leave. These people need to be helped in building a relationship with Christ and to know where to go when they are having issues.
  • Balancing Priorities of Home. Sometimes so much time and energy is given to the work that we do not keep our own homes and health balanced. Pastoral families must strive for balance all the time. A pastoral couple needs to keep their marriage strong and family time active. They need to establish boundaries. This means not taking phone calls when you are eating with family or having devotions and being careful who you allow into your home, especially to stay. A pastoral couple who speaks positively about each other in conversations with parishioners, help in securing strong boundaries.
  • Dual Relationship Issues. When a pastor or spouse becomes a teacher, mentor, coach, supporter or accountability partner, and their advice is not followed, sometimes difficult decisions about the counselee or mentored person must be made regarding church offices, their safety, their membership. Knowing too much can often put us into a position where the person feels their secrets are not safe or there may be discipline. Yet, we must discipline and confront as needed.
  • Secrets. Know that there are secrets you cannot keep, such as under age adolescents who cut themselves in self abuse, people who threaten suicide and need to be kept safe or people who make a threat against someone for bodily harm. People can be so angry when you report and they may choose to not be around you anymore, leave your church or do damage to your reputation.
  • Devious People. There are troubled people who feel powerful when they spread rumors, break up a pastor’s marriage or agitate the pastor with their contrary opinions over numerous issues and situations.  Often, this is done by people who are passive aggressive but also have narcissistic personality characteristics. Reputations can be ruined, and careers ended.  It is important to see this kind of person only with another witness present and to have help from your ministerial director in handling these situations to avoid false accusations, “he said against she said”.  When a person is held responsible by a third party, there are times when this bullying behavior is stopped, according to the research.
  • Bad Advice/Over Dependence. We can be well meaning but should we advise something that has consequences for the person, we can be held responsible. People with bi-polar or schizophrenia must be on medications to function adequately.  People with all types of addictions need accountability, counseling and groups. If we tell people they don’t need some of these things because they only have a spiritual problem, they may get worse. We must be careful to support the help they have in place and encourage them to seek adequate and appropriate help. Giving advice instead of listening may cause more harm than we understand. I know a pastor who, at a good profit, is selling health products to heal people’s problems. I have also seen dependencies created in people on pastors who keep solving multiple issues of members thus creating a very unhealthy relationship. We are to help them function with God’s help.
Situations that have occurred with myself as a spouse of a minister:
A pastor’s wife was told by a parishioner that the woman’s husband had tried to molest her step daughter. Only a few months later, the man asked to be the pathfinder director. This caused a huge issue with confidentiality. I had to suggest to my husband that that would not be wise and that I couldn’t disclose why. My husband took that and the board trusted my husband’s opinion.
An elder told me that there are pedophiles going to their church. They decided not to deal with it and the elder just supervises the children that come and go from the sanctuary to use the restroom during the church service. But the elder had to admit that he often travels on mission trips and takes vacations and no other person is as vigilant. This puts all the children at risk when he is not at church.

A young lady talked to the assistant pastor at her church and said she needed to tell him something but asked that he not tell anyone. When he agreed, she said she was cutting herself. He feels he cannot tell as he promised. However, he should never promise up front that he will not tell, especially when the young person is a minor and they have a life threatening situation that needs treatment.
A person had been talking to the pastor’s spouse about her depression. She made a suicide attempt in the past and then did shortly after talking to the pastor’s spouse. The nurse asked her why she hadn’t come in for some help and treatment before making her attempt. The pastor’s spouse said, “she did not need medicine, she needed to depend on the Lord for help”. There was a court case on this and the pastor lost.

Ways to Solve It
  • It has been common thinking in the ministry world that if a pastor cannot solve an issue for a person within three sessions of biblical counseling, they should seek counseling from other Christian professionals.
  • The pastor should see to it that others within the church–deacons, elders, and other godly people–can help to fill the role of counselor/listeners. There are training courses that can be taught to assist with this. Delegating this task to other individuals within the church will give the pastor the freedom to fulfill his responsibilities.
  • We need to know about committed licensed, Christian counselors in our area to whom we can feel comfortable for referral. We want counselors who function from a biblical worldview, and whose primary gift and calling is to help with counseling issues. It is ideal when a Christian counselor can exercise his or her gifts in the context of a church. They have skills and resources that could make a bigger difference for that person because that is their main job.  Pastors and ministry spouses can scout out the community around their church(es) and see what resources are available for them to utilize as needed. Are there support groups, seminars, Christian counselors that can be of help? Make a list and get to know more about the resources. Give a list of ideas to the counselee and ask how they are getting along with using them.

    Know there are counselors who are new age and support values, lifestyles and issues that you cannot endorse. If they are unaware of Seventh-day Adventists, they may tell the counselee that they are in a cult, they are too legalistic, they need meditation or chanting to help relieve their pain, etc. Whenever possible, see if you can talk to a counselor about referring by setting up an interview or a lunch. Many are happy to work within the boundaries of our faith if we would just share this information.
  • Establish clear boundaries when you do counseling including making sure that you will not meet with the opposite sex alone.
  • Referring for different levels of care is helpful. Counselors are to be expert at referring people to the places they can get additional help. Counselors can also be sued if they do not make the necessary referrals when it is not in their expertise to handle an issue. Spiritual counseling takes place in approximately one to three sessions.  If that person needs additional help, know your limitations and be willing to refer out.
  • Make sure that you always encourage a counselee to do their basic spiritual care. Are they involved in prayer life, studying Scripture, having regular family devotions, praying for one another, practicing Biblical love and respect, forgiveness, asking God to renew the mind, being kind one to another, coming together to reason, etc. (I am happy to send you a form that I share with couples regarding their marriage and making it a Christian marriage before we even address some of their issues).  Many times, problems can be minimized or solved when they start doing this basic work.
  • Each conference should have a list of mental health helps: from Ministry Care Line Subscriptions, to names of Adventist/Christian counselors, names of Adventist or Christian mental health/psychiatric health centers. You can go to Michigan Conference at misda.org, then to ministerial and then to resources for hospitals and residential treatment).
  • Know about who does what. Psychiatrists are MD’s or DO’s and usually are consulted for medications only. Psychologists do testing and some counseling. Social workers, counselors, limited licensed psychologists and marriage and family therapists usually do counseling.
  • They should encourage and support the person by asking how they are doing, if they followed up, and that they are praying for them and their issues. Recognize that some people like to have their problems more than resolution and will be disappointed when you don’t want to hear all about them. As well, other people freeze up and won’t do anything.
  • Do pre-marital work with couples getting married and mentor them.
  • Have a counselor(s) that can help you with certain situations and maintain a relationship with them.
Refer when people display these mental health issues:
schizophrenia               anorexia         homicide         threats of suicide
      paranoid thinking             bulimia                  violence           sexual abuse
      post-traumatic stress       addictions          neglect                physical abuse
  • Support groups are exceptionally helpful for many people.
  • Some of the mega churches who have multiple staff may be holding grief recovery, divorce support, recovery groups that can be very helpful
Know that there is a good chance that you will come in contact with people who have some severe personality disorders such as
  * narcissism   * borderline personalities   * dependent personalities.

Few pastors or their spouses have the skills to help people with these issues and these are the people that can tie up your ministry in knots so you cannot help others as well.

Helpful Websites:

  Under “resources” has book suggestions, videos, audios and Christian websites that can help on hundreds of topics.

www.Focusonthefamily.com    has hundreds of resources on marriage, parenting and life challenges.

www.Crosswalk.com   Articles on family, church and faith and she is the